There are places in the Andes where we are afraid of dust. Of what might be borne in the dust. We crossed the border and two men in camouflage stepped out from a shack with a corrugated roof, machine guns strapped like mail bags across their chests. They stopped each car and told the passengers to get out.
An Indian boy with a hose attached to a plastic tank worn on his back like a knapsack- it's called a bomba - sprayed the inside of the car, then the outside, focusing on the tires. He wore no shoes, no gloves, no mask. The last blast was at eye level. I coughed. As I caught my breath tears ran down my cheeks.
Where we waited densely planted fields lined the highway, wound through hills connected by footpaths and that is where I saw them, so many women dressed in brilliant colored skirts, ribbons braided through their hair, babies strapped to their backs, stooped over the earth, never standing upright, dropping bean after bean into sisal sacks they dragged behind them. I took their photographs and they smiled for me. A baby's urine ran down one woman's back and pooled in the dust before being swallowed by the earth.
If bugs and fungus attack a field a village's livelihood can be destroyed. But bugs and fungus don't know about borders made and remade by men across history. I don't remember the men asking for passports and they didn't check for arms. They were worried about the dust, even though there was a war going on in the countryside.
As we pulled away we knew there was no longer anything living in the dust that rose from the underbody of the car. What we didn't know was that in the ravines and ditches along this part of the Pan American Highway mass graves had been dug and covered, that this earth held the bodies of the disappeared.
If I hadn't been preoccupied with the pesticides I might have thought the freshly tilled soil meant something more than beans and corn being planted and harvested. Had I known the half-life of the pesticide's poison, I might have stood on the side of the road and waited for the air inside the car to clear, and maybe then I would have seen something.
Inside the car I pulled my t-shirt over my nose. The insecticide particles, I imagined I felt them sticking to my moist and healthy lungs, taking hold there, duplicating. My repeated coughing did not allay my worry. The man I was traveling with was annoyed at me for being self absorbed.
When I learned what was in the freshly tilled earth I knew he had been right.
The man beside me on the flight aims an aerosol can and sprays it in front of him. It's not an anti-bacterial so it's not the flu or SARS he's afraid of. He's afraid, I think, of the smell, but there is no smell, just airplane smell and not even stale airplane smell. It is the dust again.
It rises from my blanket as I pull it closer to my face. It drifts, floats, but doesn't land. Maybe this is what he's afraid of. I don't ask. I want to believe we have something in common.
When I was little, I followed the flecks of dust that my grandmother sent into orbit each night when she pulled the curtains. Some fell on my flannel comforter and merged with the wallpaper's repeating pattern of the shepherd boy playing a bugle on the mountainside. I asked my grandmother what all those dots were. With authority she said she saw nothing. Even when I pointed them out.
I have a small box of dust I shook from my sweater. It fell from my hair and scalp late Tuesday afternoon. It had been there since the morning. I threw my head forward across the dresser surface and used my fingers to shake it from my hair. But there was more, it kept coming.
My daughter's T.V. was on. The note on the kitchen table said young children should be kept away from the T.V. I ran my hand across her things when I first came in, the pencil holder shaped like a fish, glitter pens and multi-colored papers. There would be no school tomorrow. How would Thursday differ from Wednesday?
My son came into my room. I asked if his school had let out early. He shook his head yes then cupped the dust on my dresser between his hands. I told him to get the trash can. He swept all of it into my wooden box.
I should turn the box over to the authorities. My neighbor's ashes might be in it. But my son won't part with it.